David Cromer blurs the line between reality and theater in his pickup interpretation of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer prize-winning play, Our Town. In a piece traditionally associated with scenic minimalism, this version is especially utilitarian—its un-unified design is about as distinguished as the last time you saw this play done by the local high school (which you might have been involved with yourself). This is not to say that Wilder was not in revolt against the theatre of his time—he was. "I felt that something had gone wrong. . . . I began to feel that the theatre was not only inadequate, it was evasive." Now, accomplice to the playwright, Cromer won’t let anyone hide—least of all himself. He begins the show, in person, entering with a cell phone, seemingly to remind us to turn ours off. Instead, he stays throughout as the Stage Manager, first casting us into a barrage of fast-paced pantomimed daily life–making breakfast, rushing to school, no time for formalities. In a flurry of plaid shirts, skiing vests, and dungarees, Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, is awake. Not presented as “a distinct aspect of American sentiment—a myth of our folklore . . . an idyllic symbol,” this reading of the text is not the one Harold Clurman described after seeing Jose Quintero’s 1959 production at Circle in the Square. It couldn’t be: Today, a white, blue-collar, Republican town wouldn’t be thought of as a metaphor for America (about as close a locale as we could get by a living playwright, although not in terms of political belief, might be something in the work of A.R. Gurney, who also has a penchant for minimal sets; he, additionally, speaks admiringly of Our Town in his play Indian Blood). Move uptown to see August: Osage County and you’ll get a different take on how an older generation of white, blue-collar country folk can be evinced by a playwright. Unlike that play’s generational warfare, Wilder doesn’t demarcate age the way that Tracy Letts or, for the media, Tom Brokaw do—although Barbara does “become” Violet in Osage, Emily and George in Our Town don’t assume that their lives are and will be all that different from those of their parents.
Clurman noted that Wilder “spins a frail design of utmost brevity and simplicity to signify his message . . . with short unemphatic scenes.” Stagings of Our Town, however, do not typically as far as I know, treat the text with an eye toward physicalizing its message–and form–in such an organic way. That’s why this production seems so new, maybe a little brutalist, and why Cromer keeps us guessing, despite the familiarity of the material. Why can’t he get period furniture (actually two of the chairs used when I saw the production broke)? Why are the characters dressed in modern rust-belt attire? Why are the props cavalierly found objects? Why can’t the boy-girl scenes be slowed down a tad to recall sentiment? Why are the house lights on? My answer is that Cromer wants to make us no less comfortable than the characters he is following. He does not mean this to be an updating of Our Town to be set in 2009, but what we see and find on stage are what we see and find in the swirl and thrashing of universal life—because in accordance with Wilder’s conclusion, even in the theatre, we must also become blind to the beauty of living. Wilder tells us, after all, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” Where Wilder asks us to get involved with local issues, history, and demographics, Cromer puts us on the spot to become participants and extras. Then in the last act, cast becomes audience.
When thankfully, blessedly, organically, finally, the house lights are lowered in Act III, we, too, are among the dead. Like the actors—whose agility and speed have heretofore been mesmerizing–we are staring with one focus; the self-consciousness of being exposed to the arena is gone. We no longer are being asked to live in the present moment, but, familiarly, are allowed to think, reflect, and tie the disparate strands of this production together. Amazingly, for the first time, just like Emily, we see the beauty of a small New England town just the way we like it, as recalled from a high school memory. The characters that are still alive, however, cannot—they just see the busy passing of traffic as we have during the first two acts. Earlier, in Act II on the day of his son's wedding, Frank Gibbs tells of his fear that he wouldn’t have anything to talk about at dinner with his wife once married. It’s somehow interesting to note that Orson Welles, who knew Wilder–and would produce a radio version of Our Town—would include a scene in Citizen Kane (1941) of a husband and wife at the dinner table who are unable to talk to each other, continuing, in Wilder’s vein, to break the spell of sentimental Americana. Like them, Cromer's art is transparency.
(C) 2009 by Bob Shuman
OUR TOWN at the Barrow Street Theatre (27 Barrow Street, NY, NY 10014:
Starring: Elizabeth Audley, Jeremy Beiler, Robert Beitzel, Kati Brazda, David Cromer, George Demas, Donna Jay Fulks, Jennifer Grace, Wilbur Edwin Henry, Adam Hinkle, Dana Elizabeth Jacks, Ronete Levenson, Ken Marks, Jonathan Mastro, James McMenamin, Seamus Mulcahy, Lori Myers, Kathleen Peirce, Keith Perry, Jay Russell, Mark Shock, Jeff Still, Jason Yachanin
Scenic Design & Properties: Michele Spadaro / Costume Design: Alison Siple / Lighting Design: Heather Gilbert / Original Music and Music Direction: Jonathan Mastro/Casting: Pat McCorkle, CSA/Joe Lopick
Production Manager: B.D. White / Production Stage Manager: Richard A. Hodge / Assistant Stage Manager: Kate McDoniel / Associate Producers: Patrick Daly, Mark Biales / Assistant Director: Michael Page
Press Representative: O&M Co. / General Management: Two Step Productions / Advertising: Eliran Murphy Group
"BEST OF 2008"
"David Cromer's brilliantly revisionist and astounding new production of Our Town is his masterwork to date. In the jaw-dropping third act I found myself speaking the words 'Oh, my God' to no one. Cancel whatever you're doing tonight and go and see this show."
– Chris Jones, The Chicago Tribune
"BEST OF 2008"
"There is a wondrous simplicity and nakedness about this production as it spins a blazingly intense yet sharply satiric story of two small-town, middle-class American families whose destinies become intertwined. This production should travel the globe."
– Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times
"BEST OF 2008"
– Time Out Chicago
A play by THORTON WILDER
Directed by DAVID CROMER
Tues – Fri @ 7:30pm
Sat 2:30pm & 7:30pm
Sun 2:30pm & 7:30pm
Visit www.OurTownOffBroadway.com for more information.